It seems that everyone who has cooked a traditional Thanksgiving feast has a war story. It’s understandable. The menu is vast. The last-minute chores are challenging. And the bird, bless its heart, is a once-a-year wonder
I am convinced that whoever came up with this oh-so-lengthy list of deliciousness never had to cook it.
One friend tells a tale of the holidays spent under a cloud of smoke, the alarm sounding to warn the guests of a fire. Seems that his aluminum foil pan sprung a hole during the turkey roasting, something he thought was well under control. The bird was neatly draped in butter-soaked cheesecloth, one detail of the step-by-step instructions from a Martha Stewart recipe. Fat dripping on a hot oven floor is not a good thing. (Tip: If using disposable pans, consider buying two and using one inside the other.)
A former colleague speaks in hushed tones of a Thanksgiving at his mother-in-law’s home that sent guests to the hospital within hours of eating. Suspicions focused on the method used to thaw the turkey. The next year, roast turkey didn’t make an appearance at the family celebration; a tofu substitute took its place. Disappointed diners switched venues the year after that. (Tip 2: Allow plenty of time to thaw a turkey. The easiest way is to thaw in the refrigerator. Place the frozen turkey breast side up in an unopened wrapper on a tray in the fridge. Allow at least one day of thawing for every 4 pounds. Cold-water thawing takes less time but requires a lot more attention. You should never thaw a turkey by letting it sit out at room temperature. If you don’t have time for thawing, buy a fresh turkey.)
I have always contended that having much done in advance is key to holiday kitchen happiness, so this year I turned to caterer-author Renee Weir-Fontes of Yorba Linda. As an experienced caterer, Weir-Fontes knows how to organize a feast and prepare luscious dishes that will hold and, if necessary, travel. She modifies recipes when necessary to make them delicious and practical. Her book “Cook Like A Caterer” ($25) offers time tested party-sized recipes, most of which can be prepared in advance. (Tip 3: Make as many dishes as possible ahead of time.)
But that doesn’t mean her family Thanksgivings have been flawless.
“In 1971 my family moved from the suburbs to an urban farm in Yorba Linda,” she said. “We had no previous experience but soon had a whole menagerie of farm animals, fruit trees and vegetable gardens.
“My parents decided to raise a turkey for Thanksgiving – the biggest, meanest one ever born. When the time came he was impossible to pluck and we tried everything including pliers to pull the pin feathers out. When the Thanksgiving meal couldn’t be held up any longer, Mom cooked him as is and we ended up eating around the feathers.”
The feather fest certainly didn’t make her think any less of our national feast day. She and her husband, Richard Fontes, eloped on Thanksgiving Day. Both are professional caterers, and they didn’t have any food orders going out on the holiday, so they took advantage of the lull and got married. She describes the Las Vegas wedding site as “the chapel of the plastic flowers.” This year they will celebrate their 20th wedding anniversary.
Renee has been a caterer for 30 years, her business dubbed Dinner at Eight until she “retired” the name in 2008, thinking that she would slow down a little. She says that so many clients begged her to do their events that she started up again under the name Fresh Ideas Events Services. It’s a company that does some catering and cooking classes but focuses on consulting for other caterers to make their businesses more efficient.
In addition, Richard and Renee have important duties at the OC Fair. He is the exhibit specialist, managing 10,000 entries for everything from photography to quilts. She is the culinary coordinator, overseeing thousands of dishes entered by home cooks in contests.
“I love my job at the fair, I would do it every day if I could,” she says in a joyful tone. “It is so much fun. Everyone is so passionate about their entries. We’ve already started working on next year – subjects such as how to decorate the Exhibit Promenade, which awards will be given, and the theme for 2014.”
But the Thanksgiving theme was at work when she suggested four dishes from her cookbook to prepare ahead for the feast; an appetizer, a salad, a side dish and a dessert.
Clean out the refrigerator, Thanksgiving cooks. Make way for do-ahead sanity.